Claire Lew: Not Being The Last to Know

If you don’t know your company well, how can you expect to run it well?

Why is the CEO often the last to discover something? Those pesky employees aren’t telling you everything you need to know. Claire’s talk from BoS USA 2015 helps you understand why people don’t tell you the things you need to know but more importantly, has highly actionable advice about how to build a much more honest, open and productive work culture.


High Performing Teams AMA


These notes are by Tom Pedals, CEO Founder of Hey Update – a user of Claire’s product. You can see some of the other excellent notes he took from sessions here.

“If you don’t know your company well how do you expect to run your company well” – Claire Lew

Why people don’t speak up

  • Fear. Risk of putting their relationship with their boss at risk.
  • Futility. Feeling as though even if they spoke up nothing would change.
    Studies have shown it’s around 1.4 times as powerful an obstacle than fear.
  • What to do? Ask and Act


  • “Answers only come when you ask questions”

Why is it hard to ask?

  • It’s easier to make an assumption than to ask a good question.
  • We value the outcome of tasks over relationships.

How to get good at asking for feedback – overcome the power dynamic.

  • Ask for advice instead of feedback: “I could use your advice…”
  • Admit vulnerability: “I’m struggling with…”

Shoot The Elephant.* 

  • Make it clear it’s about learning and not to judge.
  • Tell them you want them to be honest:
  • “Don’t worry about being nice”
  • “Please feel free to argue with me”


Be Specific

  • Ask about one thing: “What is one thing you could do to…”
  • Time limit the question: “In the past two weeks what could have been better?”
  • Ask for concrete information: “Can you give me an example?”

Look to the Future (guess where this links…?)

  • What could be better in the future?
  • People tend to be more honest.

Do it Often

  • Ask questions often to make it a habit
  • Practice → Habit → Culture

Opportunities for Asking for Feedback

  • One-on-ones
  • Social gatherings
  • Pulse surveys (or Know Your Company)
  • All company get togethers

4 Questions to Ask Every Employee

  1. If someone asked you to describe the company vision would a clear answer immediately come to mind?
  2. Do you think the company is the right size?
  3. Have you ever felt afraid to make a suggestion because you thought you might be shot down?
  4. Do you feel you’re spread too thin?


  • “Action is how you overcome futility”
  • “Why ask if you’re not going to act”

Why People Tend Not to Act

  • Busy
  • Biased and assume it’s the person not the company

How to get Good at Acting on Feedback

  • Listen Without Judgement (hard to do)
  • Acknowledge your biases
  • Being right vs. Getting it right
  • Writing down feedback during a one-to-one gives you time to process the information. The employee also gains trust because of this and are not as defensive.
  • Ask yourself: “What does it feel like to work for me?”
  • Don’t get defensive. It’s one of the biggest killers of open culture. One way to be less defensive is to assume good intentions.

Recognise the Messenger

  • Give recognition to the employee who gives feedback when it’s implemented. They get a nice feeling of gratitude and it sets an example to handle dissenting opinions.

Explain why you not doing something

  • If you decide not to implement someones feedback you should explain why. Most employees just want an explanation, otherwise they will assume.
  • Be direct with your reasoning and don’t make it personal.
  • Don’t use: I think, I feel, me.
  • Use: the project, the company, us.

Emphasise Commonality

  • Point out what you agree on. Remember the point of feedback is not to win!

Knock Out a Quick Win

  • Timeliness matters.
  • Take advantage of low hanging fruit.

What Next?

  • Start with one thing. Culture doesn’t happen overnight.
  • What employees think and how they feel exists whether you chose to listen or not. Prove your intentions through your actions.

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Claire Lew, Know Your Company: Awesome. Thank you so much Mark for that kind introduction. I’m so thrilled to be here today.

I speak at a lot of conferences and ‘Business of Software’ is probably has been my favourite conference to speak at. The reason why it’s been one of my favourite conferences is just because I’ve felt that with every talk I’ve felt as though I could really take something practical away. In fact, David Stock, I was thinking about now your company which is a software product that we run, that we build, and all good ideas about ‘oh man it would be so cool if we could do this’ or ‘ooh it would be so interesting to do this and maybe, and maybe we’ll build something separate completely from scratch down the line’. So anyway though.

My name is Claire. I’m the CEO of Know Your Company and I was briefly mentioning, it’s a software tool that helps CEOs get to know their employees better. We specifically work with businesses with about 25 to 75 employees who are experiencing growing pains. So that feeling as a founder, as a CEO, of when you’ve got you know 5 people and then you grow to 10 and 15 then all of a sudden you’re at 20 and things just don’t feel like you have a pulse as well as you’d like to. And so that’s what we help CEOs with.

As Mark mentioned, the product was actually originally built by Base Camp so it was one of their products among their product line along with Base Camp and High Rise and Camp Fire and they built it because, they, themselves, as a company also felt this pain first hand of feeling like they were the last to know something, as the founders and the CEO of the company.

So they build this company, they built Know Your Company about two years ago and it was so successful as a product they actually decided to spin it out into its own separate company and then they asked me to run it as the CEO. And so today we’ve been running Know Your Company as a whole separate company for almost 2 years. We work with over 8 thousand people all over the world in 15 different countries – companies like Airbnb, Kickstarter, Medium, a couple of customers in the audience today. It’s been really amazing to be able to help CEOs in this way.

Today though I would like to ask all of you to think back and to think back to a time when someone in your company left and you didn’t see it coming. And maybe this hasn’t happened in your company yet which is good but it’s frustrating to even think about. it’s something personally for me as a founder, personally for me as a CEO that I worry about. It’s frustrating because if you don’t know if someone’s going to leave, if you don’t know that there’s a problem, you can’t do anything about it. If you would have known, maybe you would have been able to.

I guarantee you that if you are a CEO, if you are a founder, business owner, manager, you have been the last to know something in your company every single day. Whether it’s an employee that is under performing, an employee or a project that’s running behind, whether it’s an employee that’s disagreeing with direction about the company or someone who’s considering leaving. And it’s something that happens in every company. Whether you’re Balsamiq, Yesware, Precision Lender – someone’s disagreeing with the direction of your company. At Service Rocket too, someone is thinking about leaving. At Adzerk, NowSight, Loopio, Mailchimp too and at PHC Software there’s things you don’t know in your company that’s happening right. now.

So it’s happening in all companies – you’re the last to know. It doesn’t matter how successful you are. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in business for. And it’s something that happens all the time. In fact, there’s a study in 2009 – a national study done by Cornell where they found that 85% of employees who are surveyed felt they were unable to express their feedback. 70% of employees said they hesitated to speak up at work and in fact 42% of employees actually admitted to withholding information. Withholding information about a problem they saw, withholding information about an idea that they had. They actually kept something from the company because they didn’t feel comfortable sharing it.

And in fact, I’ve been one of those employees.

About 4 years ago I was an employee at a company working for a CEO and while I was working there I felt this pain first hand. For some reason in that company I did not feel comfortable voicing my thoughts, my ideas, my concerns. And because of that, I left. I ended up actually starting my own consulting practice. Working with CEOs to solve this very problem because I just couldn’t believe how difficult it was starting my own consulting practice – BaseCamp was actually my first client which is how I first got introduced to them. But it’s a pain first hand that I’ve experienced as an employee and that I’ve seen first hand happen to another CEO.

The thing is though it doesn’t have to be that way. My situation doesn’t have to happen in your company. You do not have to be the last to know if you’re a CEO, if you’re a manager, if you’re a business owner.

And that’s what I’m going to talk about today. Specifically I’ll talk a little bit about why this matters. What the cost is that if you don’t do anything and if you are constantly the last to know. I’m going to talk about why it happens and lastly most importantly I’m going to talk about what you can actually do that if you run a company or you’re a manager in a company, there are steps you can take to create an environment, where regardless of how introverted your employees are, you’ll enable them to feel more comfortable in giving you feedback and so that you are no longer the last to know.

So first let’s talk a little bit though about why does this matter? Right, okay, yes the feeling of being the last to know is uncomfortable. We don’t like it but what’s the real cost of if we don’t do anything about it? What’s the real cost of if we don’t actively try to get to know our companies better?

Well, the first, as you might have guessed is disengagement.

It’s the reason why I left the company – my own company a couple of years ago. It’s shown that managers who give little to no feedback actually result in an employee being actively disengaged 4 out of 10 times. And so because that if you are disengaged now that directly impacts the business. It’s proven that up to 10 grand you’ll lose in salary for every employee because of reduced productivity. All because of someone not being engaged because they don’t feel like they can speak up in their company. This is directly linked with turnover and so as an employee, you know, if I feel like ‘You know what? I can’t speak up in my company. I’m going to think about leaving.’ In fact, 74% of employees today – 74% of employees – today would consider finding a new job. And what’s the reason for that?

There is an incredibly recent study done by Gallop actually just a couple months ago this Spring found that the number one reason for why an employee will leave their job is because of their manager. It’s a pretty well-known statistic that’s been found in a lot of repetitive studies but the one that was done this Spring revealed something really interesting which is that the reason why someone doesn’t like their boss is because they feel that they can’t agree with this statement – they feel that you know what I can’t approach someone with the question that I have. The employees who are actually the most engaged are the ones who do agree with this statement – over half of them, where they can say “I can approach my manager with any question”.

And so if someone doesn’t feel that way, they’ll leave. And it’s, as I’m sure you know not only is it just financially expensive, actually up to 1.5 times an employee’s salary but replacing someone in a company, I mean that’s, you know, there’s some cultural expense there, there’s just the time that it takes to find someone. And then lastly, the real cost of losing someone, sorry the real cost of not knowing someone or not knowing your company as well as you should; are the accidents and mistakes that occur. So the problems in your company that you don’t know about until too late. And there is one study that was done in 2010 – it was with a couple thousand employees across several industries and they found that employees, they only directly intervene in about 2 out of 5 unsafe work conditions. It’s less than half of the time for an employee not speaking up when they see an issue and a problem that’s actually unsafe.

So okay it’s clear that not knowing your company as well as you should, being the last to know, no one wants that.

And if I’m an employee I don’t really want that either. So, why does it happen? What’s actually going on in the environment that makes someone feel like they can’t speak up at work and give that honest feedback to you as a CEO – even if you as a CEO as a founder of saying ‘hey, I’ve got a suggestion box. My door is always open.’ I’m trying everything I can, why is it that it’s still happening? Why is it still that you are the last to know?

So there are two reasons for this. The first is fear.

And you might have guessed this. There is an automatic power dynamic at play between an employee and a boss where there is an exchange of money happening. One person is working for another and because of that there is no really an incentive for an employee to put themselves, to put that relationship at risk. So there is an element of fear and it doesn’t always mean that the employee is scared of getting fired necessarily. What it could mean is that they are scared of the relationship changing. You know the CEO feeling that ‘oh man, this person may not be promoted later’ – even creating awkwardness in a work environment. There’s some fears associated with that for some employees that plays a real role in employee feeling like they cannot voice their opinions.

The second reason, and this is the most powerful reason for why people don’t speak up at work – and its futility.

So it’s the feeling that even if I were to speak up, nothing would happen, nothing would change. And studies have shown that in fact this feeling of futility is 1.8 times more powerful than fear as an obstacle to feedback.

So, if those were the obstacles to giving or getting honest feedback, what is it that we can do about it? How can we overcome this feeling of fear? How can we overcome this feeling of futility? And what can we do as CEOs, owners and managers in our companies to create that environment?

Two things. Really simple. You have to ask for feedback in the right way and you have to act on that feedback in the right way. Ask and Act. Two really simple concepts but there’s some very specific powerful things that you can do for both of those that’ll really change and transform your culture just by doing them. I’m going to take you through that.

So first though. Asking.If I want feedback, yeah I have to ask for it, I get that. You know you ask questions, maybe a lot of you already send out employee engagement surveys, maybe some of you already do one-on-ones but asking questions… I want to take a step back because I want to talk about why it’s important and I want to talk about well if it’s important to why is so hard for us to do because we actually don’t do it a lot in business. So first of all, in terms of why asking questions, why this is important. Well, like I mentioned, if you want feedback, if you want answers, that only comes if you ask questions. That’s the only way you find anything out.

The second reason for why asking questions is so important but it’s really the only way that you can overcome fear. The minute you ask a question. It signifies trust. It signifies confidence. I am taking the time to invest the time to ask a question to someone. That’s why it’s so important and when you think about asking a question to your employees you’re really thinking about ‘okay well, how do I overcome this fear? How do I actually ask a question in the least biased, least threatening way to them? ‘.

Now it’s important. What makes it so hard to do?

Yes I know we need to ask questions. I get that it’s important. What makes asking questions so difficult? The reason is because honestly it’s just easier to make an assumption and have an answer instead of to probe and ask a question and to think about something a little bit more thoughtfully, in a way that’s different to how you originally see it as. It’s much easier to say ‘I already know what my employees think’ or ‘oh they are only just going to say this’ versus to actually ask that question.

The other thing that makes it kinda hard to ask questions is the fact that as a society we actually seem to value tasks more than relationships. You see this in sports, you see this in entertainment and you definitely see it in business where people – they like to reward the outcomes versus the actual relationship itself. For example in business when you are promoted as a manager the extra responsibility that you are given is that you actually tell other people what to do. Not to ask questions, not to dig and to understand the relationship better, to focus on that but rather to make sure that the outcome is good – which is fine but it’s interesting because what it does is it bias’s us as managers, as CEOs – to not focus on the relationship as much but to just focus on the result. When you think then about well then okay ‘how do we actually overcome those things?’ ‘how do we actually get good at asking for feedback – to actually get good at asking questions?’

Five things that you can do.

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The first is this idea of going first.

Like I was mentioning – you need to overcome this power dynamic between an employee and a boss. You need to overcome this sense of fear. One way to do that is by, what I call, going first and asking for advice. People don’t like to give feedback because it feels like they’re being critical but everyone loves to give advice. Everyone who loves to give advice feels helpful. The next time you are in a one-on-one, instead of saying ‘hey, you know, I could use some feedback on what you thought about the project’ ask ‘I could use your advice about that project that we had, that would be really helpful to me’. Framing the feedback as advice is a way to overcome some of that fear and to go first as a leader.

A second thing you can do is to admit some vulnerability. Again to diffuse that sense of fear that an employee might have is to say something like ‘I am struggling with coming up with a good plan to market the new site to our customers. I would love your help on that.’ Instead of saying something like ‘I really need some feedback on figuring out what to do with the marking site.’, ’I’m struggling with something.’ So again, showing that vulnerability is a way to open someone up to be able to give you that more honest feedback.

Another thing you can do is you can figure out what’s getting in the way. You can figure out and dig and ask how you yourself as the boss, as the manager, is actually contributing to this problem. So you can ask ‘how’s my behaviour making things worse for you?’ Again, it’s showing some vulnerability, it’s going first as a leader but by doing so you’re saying to the employee that I recognise that I’m not perfect, I don’t have all the answers, you may be seeing something that I’m not seeing, that I could be doing better. That’s going first. That’s one of the things that you can do to be able to ask questions in a better way.

The second thing you can do is what I like to call shoot the elephants

And what I mean by that is there probably in every conversation that you have with and employee – there is probably some sort of elephant in the room for why that employee isn’t telling you everything. It might be because they know the last time, they brought up an idea to you, you kind of exploded and got a little defensive. It might be because they know that you have a tendency of always just not liking this idea and they’re just not going to bring it up. So we’re all pretty aware of what the elephants might be so what you can do is you can talk about them. You can say, ‘you know what? I want this feedback to be all about learning. That’s why I’m asking it. I’m not here to judge.’ But being really clear that you’re looking to learn something versus to actually judge what the person is saying. And you can say that absolutely directly. I am asking this question because I want to learn whatever it is you’re looking to learn. You can also tell employees up front that you want them to be honest. This is a great way to shoot that elephant in the room. Tell them that ‘hey, you know, I get it. You can be both kind and honest with me – you don’t have to worry about hurting my feelings.’ For any employee who does feel a little more hesitant about that, you can even say ‘you know what? Don’t even worry about being nice. Just focus on being helpful. That’s what I want.’ That’s a great way again to shoot that elephant in the room of why they may not be telling you the full truth of what they are really feeling. You can also say to them ‘sugar-coated answers – they don’t help anyone. I really do want the truth.’ Or ‘please feel free to argue with me.’ That’s a great way to be really direct – that you want contrarian thoughts, advice and opinions. So that’s Shooting the Elephants as the second thing you can do.

The third is Be Specific.

It’s interesting when we think about questions – it’s pretty intuitive. Of course I’m going to ask a specific question. But it’s so interesting how often we do the opposite. For example, you might ask in a one-on-one: How’s it going? And 9 times out of 10 someone will say: fine. Then you’ll think later: why did they just say fine, I don’t really understand… So it’s interesting how really being specific about the question makes such a difference. One way to do that is you can ask about one thing. This is one of the tricks I personally use all the time so just say what’s one thing that we could have done better last week? What’s one thing that you saw from the meeting that you thought could be improved? What’s one thing in our business that we should be thinking about next quarter?

Another way to be specific is that you can ask about a specific event, milestone or a project. Centre it around something. So you could say: what’s something we should talk about at our next all-hands meeting? What’s something that we should review before we meet with our board? Centre it around something specific, as an event, a period in time or a situation.

The last thing you can do is something that I like to call Time Boxing your question. So to constrain what you’re talking about in the question that you’re asking to a specific period in time. For example, to ask: In the past 2 weeks, what’s one thing you thought could have been better instead of just saying: yeah, what’s something that we should be improving on. So time boxing it to the previous day, the previous week, however amount of time that you want to do that for. And of course you can follow up by asking for more concrete information. This is a great way to really unlock more information when an employee is kinda giving you a vague idea of something that you’re like ‘ooh I want to learn more about what they’re really thinking about that part of the company’. You can say: Can you give me an example? Or what does that look like? Or what do you really mean by that? Or could you draw it out for me? Ask them for more concrete information. And the difference, it’s amazing. Like I was saying, if you ask: how’s it going? I assure you they’ll say it’s fine. But if you ask instead something specific, something where you’re time boxing the questions, something where you’re asking about a specific event, a specific project, You’re going to unlock so much more information because of that. Make sure to be specific.

The fourth thing you can do is to look to the future.

This is a really interesting concept or a reflexion of us as people but one thing you will notice is if you ask someone about what they could have done better in the past, it kinda feels icky. But if instead you ask them about what they could be doing better in the future, people kind of open up a lot more. So if the questions you’re asking reflect more and focus a little bit more on the future, you’ll notice how people are much more willing to open up to you about it. And I don’t mean that this means that every single question that you ask in an employee engagement survey or in your one-on-one or you talk about in your all-hands meeting – I don’t mean that every single one of them should be about the future but what I do mean is just make sure that some are. Make sure that not every single question is just focusing on what’s been happening in the past. So very simply, very straight-forwardly, you could just ask: going forward what’s one thing that we could be doing better? That we could you know make sure to implement. So that’s Looking to the Future.

The last thing that you can do in terms of being able to ask questions well, to make sure you’re not the last to know, is to ask these questions often

And to give people as many channels and opportunities as possible to answer those questions. The reality is that the more that you do it, the more that you practice asking these questions, your employees are going to notice and all of a sudden it’ll start to become a habit. That’s really habit. That’s really what culture is made of. So if you want to create a culture that’s open, if you want to have a culture where people aren’t afraid to speak up, give their two cents – doing it as often as possible is important.

You also, like I was saying, want to provide as many opportunities for people to speak up. Whether that’s one-on-ones, whether that’s social gatherings, barbecues, whether that’s happy hours, doing company poll surveys, whether its All-company get together, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is you give people more than just this one shot. ‘Okay this is the only time you can give me feedback and that’s it’. You might not be thinking that, you might not be saying that but it comes across that way. Doing it as often as possible, giving people as many opportunities as possible, to a way in is really helpful.

The last thing that you can do to make sure you are asking for this feedback often is think about who you’re getting this feedback from. For example, if you’re the CEO in a company of 60 people are all your one-on-ones just with managers? That’s okay, especially if you are that large, but you also want to think about, maybe there are folks in the company that you should be talking to who are newer, maybe that I should go more directly to the source of the information to uncover things I might not know that I need to hear. So that’s the last thing that you can do is to make sure you’re doing and asking those questions often. Remember to go first, shoot the elephants, be specific, look to the future in those questions that you ask, and to ask these questions often.

Now in terms of applying these more specifically to your company there is one thing I wanted to share, which is with Know Your Company software we regularly ask questions based on those five principles I’ve shown you. And from that data with pulled the top four questions that have been the most affective and most popular that CEO’s have asked and so there are really four questions you should ask every employee in your company that reflect those five things I showed you.

The first is this, if someone asked you to describe the vision in the company, would a clear answer immediately come to mind? This question is important because thinking about the vision in the company making sure people align that is how people are motivated so you want to make sure people are on the same page about it. It’s also an incredibly specific question about the vision which makes it very affective.

The second question you should ask every single employee is; do you think the company is the right size? Often times, when you are the last to know something as the CEO is purely the bi-product of scale. It’s a fact that you’ve been hiring a lot of employee’s lately and you used to be able to go around and talk to everyone in the room and now you just can’t anymore. And so asking people about how they feel about that transition do you think the company is the right size is a great way to do that.

The third question you should ask every employee is, have you ever been afraid to suggest an idea at work that you think might get shot down? And this is an important question to ask really because as it goes back to that obstacle fear that I was talking about that feeling are our employees holding back because they feel as though someone is going to shoot it down. Is that fear at play? That’s really important to identify and it’s a great way to shoot the elephant in the room and to address that upfront.

And then the last question you should ask every single employee is; do you feel like you’re spread too thin right now? So this is a great question to ask because workload and people feeling as though that they can accomplish things within a reasonable time frame and not feel too worn out its incredibly key to people feeling engaged and happy and wanting to stay at your company. And so this is another great question because its’ so specific in getting at that.

Another way to apply these five things that I was telling you about, how to ask a question well to your company, are a couple of things you can do in the different meetings you have, the different one on ones you have with your employees, I have a little check list here, some five things. So during your next leadership team meeting it’s a great opportunity to ask for advice. This is something one of the CEO’s that we work with at Know Your Company will do often. They say to their leadership meeting I would love some advice on how to prepare for our next board of directors meeting. How do you do that and how can you help me do that?

Another thing you can do before you next employee engagement survey so if you happen to roll out some poll survey or do some sort of annual review process with a survey is that make sure to people why you do it. Not just here’s another survey please fill it out and it’d be great to have it by Thursday. But to shoot the elephant in the room and say hey I know we’ve done a lot of these surveys before and I know some of you have been frustrated that nothing seems to come out of it but this one we’re doing it because we really want to make an honest effort. So to shoot the elephant in the room and talk about why you’re doing it clearly.

Another thing you can do is in your next all-company meeting ask a specific question. And it’s hard to do especially if you have a large group and have a large company that you’re talking to but instead of saying does anyone have any questions ask what do people think about the last all company meeting that we did is there anything specific you would like to hear for next time. How do you think this one went? Be specific about the questions you’re asking. And then in your next one on one make sure the questions you are asking are not just about past performance or past events, make sure they look to the future.

And the last thing you can do to really make sure that you are asking these questions in a right way, is to ask yourself when is the last time I talked to someone that isn’t a manager, when’s the last time I talked to someone and asked these questions to a new employee. Someone who recently joined. To an employee who doesn’t really speak up. Make sure to increase those interactions in some way. And again this doesn’t mean you have to schedule a one on one with every single employee in your company but rather a way for you to figure out how do I make sure that I can ask these questions not just to the people and the sources I’m always hearing things from.

So again, make sure you go first, you shoot the elephant in the room, be specific, you look to the future and you do it often.

So ok, we want to be able to ask questions in the right way but the second part of what I was talking about was how you don’t have to be the last person to know something in the company has to do with taking action. Seems obvious enough, right? If you wanna actually do something with the feedback right? Action it’s important.

It’s also important though because it’s actually how you overcome the biggest obstacle as to why people don’t give you feedback. It’s how you overcome that sense of futility. Again, the reason why people are asking you these questions is because they want someone to do something with it. And that doesn’t mean implementing the suggestions but what it does mean is doing something with it, so I’m going to talk about what you can actually do. So again why even ask these questions if you are not going to act on them in the first place.

So if that’s the case then, why don’t we do this more often? As CEO’s, as founders, as managers why does it seem so hard when we ask people and get a lot of feedback sometimes we get a little stuck with what do I actually do with it. I have heaps of information or it seems kinda vague I don’t even know what to do with it to move forward with it.

A part of it is that we’re incredibly busy, so if you run a company, if you’re in charge of a team there is something you need to produce and so how you go about it, the questions that you’re asking and what you’re doing with the feedback that sometimes falls off to the side. You’re trying to execute on something and I get that. We’re incredibly busy.

The other reason that makes it hard to act on this feedback is that we’re biased. There’s something that some of you may be familiar with called the fundamental attribution error. And what this is is a bias that we believe that when something goes wrong we attribute it to the person rather to the environment. So because of that we don’t like to act on feedback because we think you know what it doesn’t have anything to do with the company, the company is fine, it’s this person. It’s their own attitude. It’s their own opinion. It’s nothing in the environment that needs change. So we’re bias. It’s interesting there are studies that have been done that show this fundamental attribution bias increases the busier that we are. So we intend to assume that we don’t need to do anything because nothing is wrong in the environment, nothing is wrong in the company.

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There are ways to overcome those obstacles, overcome those barriers though. And there are five things too with how to act on feedback well to do that.

The first is to listen without judgement

Which is really hard to do. Really difficult to do. It’s important though because often times whether or not we choose to act on feedback it’s based on if we think the feedback is even good. And like I was saying there are a lot of biases and assumptions that come in to play. Maybe you had a previous interaction with the employee who’s giving you that feedback and speaking up that’s causing you say I don’t even like that idea but is that really the case? Is it really about what they are saying or is about the person? So acknowledge what those biases are. And what it really ends up being is this difference to being right and getting it right. Is it because you want to be right as the CEO, as the leader, as the manager? Or can you take a step back and realise there are some biases and assumptions that are probably coming in and you just want to get it right. Maybe what the employee is saying is that there is a slither of that makes sense.

Another great way to do this, to really help yourself listen without judgement is to write down the feedback. So if you’re in a one on one with someone is to have a sheet of paper and pencil and as they are telling you things to write it down. It’s really helpful for two things. One: it’s going to give you some time to process the information, you’re not going to just spit back something and react right away. And two: because of that an employee is going to gain a lot more trust in how you are responding and going to notice that you are not being defensive that you’re writing things down and you’re taking it seriously.

The other thing you can do is to ask yourself what does it feel like to work for me? This is a great way to help yourself to listen without judgement because if you’re honest with yourself maybe it’s really hard, maybe it’s difficult. And again, what are the things I’m doing that are maybe getting in the way. What does it like to work for me?

So a big part of this and a big part of listening without judgement is making sure you don’t get defensive. Being defensive, this is the one thing, the one thing that more than any other action you’ll take that’ll stop an employee from speaking up the next time around. They’re watching how you’ll react. And it’s interesting, so what being defensive essentially is assuming that the employee has a bad intention. That’s really where defensiveness comes from. And so the way to help yourself be more less defensive is to do the opposite. Assume good intentions from your employee, and your defensiveness it goes away. And in doing so it’s a great way to show that you are listening without judgement. You’re taking in what that person is saying and maybe still at the end of it you still don’t agree with what the person is saying but in how you respond you are going to be able to do that a lot better. So listen without judgement.

The second thing you can do; is you can recognise the messenger

Essentially when an employee gives you feedback, once you’ve asked for it, sometime they’re not even looking for their feedback to be implemented, maybe they even understand that ‘yeah maybe it’s not realistic, yeah I understand that I’m only one employee out of a 120 that are asking for this’. Sometimes all the employee is looking for is to be recognised. That sense of gratitude. And gratitude is incredibly influential in ensuring an employee is engaged and ensuring that someone feels that they are connected to the company that they are part of.

The other thing that recognising and employee does or recognising the messenger is you set an example for how people handle dissenting opinions in the company. For example, if you take an employee who’s given some tough feedback to the company but you thank them publicly in front of everyone else that’s going to set an example of how you handle people who have different opinions to you and the company. So whether that’s in an all hands meeting, thanking everyone or thanking the person who sent the message. Whether that’s individually in a one on one. Whether that’s sending an email to someone saying I know we disagreed about this but I really appreciate it, that means a lot. So saying I really appreciate it saying it means a lot to hear that piece of feedback those are both great ways to recognise the messenger.

The third thing you can do to act on the feedback

You are getting is to explain why you are not doing something. Again auctioning the feedback doesn’t mean you are implementing the actual suggestion. A lot of times it’s just explaining why their idea is not a good idea or what you are doing instead or why it might be something that’s put off till later.

Again, a lot of times of for why an employee voices a suggestion, a piece of feedback, is not because they are looking for it to be implemented they just want an explanation they just want that context of what is really going on. What’s the bigger picture for how everything is happening and can you just tell me why certain decisions are being made. And without that explanation what will happen is an employee will fill it in themselves. If something is not explained they’re just going to assume. ‘Oh we are not changing our employee benefits well I guess they just don’t care about us as employees’ rather than ‘oh well last quarter was tough financially and we just changed it the quarter previous to that so right now we don’t have the money and it’s not a convenient time to change our employee benefits plan’. If you explain that to people all of a sudden it changes a little bit. And you can just be direct about it. You could say ‘here’s why we are not doing this. This is the reason why’.

You’ll also want to make sure that’s it’s not personal. So when you explain something it’s not about you, you’re not trying to say this is how I personally feel that’s why this is happening. You want to talk about the fact that it’s for the benefit of the company. It’s because its what’s the best interest for the project going forward. It’s for us. This affects my employee benefits plan too.

And then at the end of the conversation, when you’re explaining to someone why you’re not doing something you can follow up and simply ask ‘what do you think?’. Just because you’ve made the call already and you’ve made the decision about what you are not going to do doesn’t mean that you can ask employees internally what do you think about that though? I might not still change my mind but I’d still like to know what you think. So it’s a way to still keep the conversation open and have people feel it’s more of a dialogue instead of you just saying here is why we’re not doing something. Those are some ways where you can explain why you are not doing something in the company.

The fourth thing you can do to act on feedback is to emphasise what you share in common.

It’s an important piece of making sure that people feel on board with the changes you are making or not making because differences when you argue those seem to be the only things you highlight so you want to make sure that you point out what are the things you agree on. What are the values that you share as a company? What are the things you agreed on last week about the feature you are building? So point out the things you agree on and underscore the fact that when you ask for feedback you’re not trying to win. You’re trying to learn something. So emphasise this to an employee, ‘hey this is not about me being right or you being wrong. We share some things in common. We’re all playing on the same team.’ To explicitly say that you’ll want to say ‘hey, I know we don’t agree on these things but here are the things that we agree on’. So, emphasise what you share in common.

The last thing you can do to act on feedback to make sure you’re not the last to know is to knock out a quick win.

From the feedback you are getting what is the one thing you could do immediately that’s small, that’s tangible, that’s going to matter? And do it immediately, timeliness matters. It’s amazing. With the CEO’s that we work with through Know Your Company, we hear stories all the time people learning ‘wow, someone needed a new office chair and when we got them one I saw an instant boost in morale’. ‘Oh we needed to change the phone service and we’ve been sitting on it a while but I knocked that out’. It’s incredible to see what taking advantage of low-hanging fruit, taking advantage of things that, you know changing the phone service is not difficult, but it makes a difference because we’re acting on something that someone said. It’s the whole point for asking for feedback, is to act on it.

And for bigger things, things that are a little tougher – delegate them immediately. Give ownership to your actual employees about how they can actually solve and fix some of things they very much suggested. So if someone suggested how to improve how all-company meetings are run say ‘all right great, would you like to run the next one? Would you like to put together an agenda for the next one? Would you like to present some ideas to me for what you think we should cover?’. So to delegate the things you know need to get done but just haven’t gotten to yet.

And of course, most importantly, you want to really clearly communicate when you do make these changes that you are doing them because someone said so. That you’re listening, that you’re actually taking the feedback from other people and putting it into practice.

Remember to listen without judgement, recognise the messenger for the feedback, explain why you’re not doing something, emphasise what you share in common and most importantly when you do see a piece of feedback that is worthwhile knock it out and implement it immediately.

So to apply this very specifically to things like Monday morning that you can go in and do next week, there are a couple of things you can do:

Like I was saying when you do have a one on one make sure you are writing down what someone says. It’s an incredible way to make sure you are not being defensive.

During your next all-hands meeting make sure that you do recognise someone. Bring someone up to the front of the meeting and say ‘thanks so much John for making sure that your challenging us about these ideas. We’re not going to go in this direction but you made a very thoughtful comment about that and we really appreciate it’.

The next time that you do actually implement a piece of feedback that you think is worthwhile, talk about it, send a company-wide email about it, put it in your next company newsletter, the next time you do see someone in the hallway that made that comment or suggestion make sure to thank them and tell them we actually did that.

And then lastly, the next time you do address your entire company, whether it’s an all-hands meeting, whether it’s a skype call etc explain the things you haven’t acted on. Explain we’ve been all talk and no action about this. We’re not moving on this and here’s why. And then when you do also ensure to explain the things you have in common.

And so again, five things you can do to act on feedback to make sure that you’re not the last to know.

When it comes to thinking about how do we actually overcome that sense of fear and futility that’s associated with people not speaking up, it really comes down to asking questions in the right way and acting in the right way as well.

And you might be thinking ‘ok, this is all great. I get it. I don’t want to be the last to know but to be completely honest with you there’s a lot of stuff in my business I need to do. I get that as a business owner myself. There are a million things. A million fires you’re trying to put out. A million things you are trying to juggle as the same time. How important really is it to make sure I’m always asking questions and acting on feedback in the right way. And the thing is, if you don’t know these things though, if you don’t know your company as well as you would like to, you can’t run it well. Yes, you need to go and make sure that you’re hiring someone who’s great and make sure the recruiting process is going great but if there’s an employee in your company who’s not happy and you don’t know about it, you can’t even do that well. Yes, you need to make sure that the business is growing and your cash flow is positive and that you’re making sure your customers are happy but if there is something that one of your customer service representatives knows about why that growth isn’t happening then how can you even do anything about it? Knowing these things, not being the last to know, is just as important as, if not more, than all the things you doing to run your business successfully.

So you might also be thinking, it may be important but you also gave a lot of stuff and in theory it all sounds great but these are hard things to do when you’re in the moment, when you’re having the conversation, when you’re planning your all-company meeting, it’s a lot, the five things, the five bullets, it’s a lot of things to remember and have top of your mind in the moment.

And so one thing I always suggest is start with one thing. Start with one, focus on it for one month. For example, if your focus is going to be to ask specific questions, for one month we’re just going to be really specific about how we ask questions to make sure we’re not just asking for general things. Just do that. Or maybe we’re going to focus a lot on recognising the messenger. We haven’t done a great job of showing gratitude within the company so maybe that’ll be a great way to encourage people to speak out. So just focus on one thing at a time and understand that if you do want something to change in your company’s culture, if you want employees to start speaking up more regularly, to be more honest and open with you, it doesn’t happen overnight. These things take time. Like I was saying culture is the bi-product of habits. And those habits only happen with time.

And lastly you may be thinking, knowing my company better, knowing these things I don’t know, it also makes me feel a little bit nervous. I don’t know if I want to know. And with that, I get it, I really do. But the interesting thing is, the thing you don’t know about what your employees are thinking, how they are feeling, they still exist. Whether you’re going to ask questions about it, whether or not you’re going to act on it, whether or not you’re going to probe about it, they exist. They’re there so you do want to know about it.

Don’t be so hard on yourself.

Yes, a lot of this I’m sure, you not being the last to know, will always happen. Like I said there are ways to decrease it but don’t be so hard on yourself. Again, it’s something that happens in every single company. It’s something that happens all the time. And so hopefully though what you can do is you can show your employees well it is something I’m serious about and at the end of the day to act on it and do some of these things.

Really these are just words on a slide that I’ve provided to you so the real onus is on all of you and I would love to challenge each and every one of you to find out a way of saying ‘I agree with these things, what’s one thing I can take from this that I can actually put in to practice and do?’.

And so lastly in the spirit of asking for feedback, in the spirit of being open. I would like to ask all of you, how I can be more helpful? If there is something for you, as a CEO, that you feel like I’m always the last to know this, please come and talk to me after the presentation. If you run a department within a company and you feel like you’ve been constantly struggling to figure out how to create an environment where people do come to you with problems and suggestions, I’d love to hear about it.

And lastly, if you are curious about even how technology and software can play a role in helping you not be the last to know, I’d also like to talk to you about our software product Know Your Company. And, in fact, we never really do discounts with the product but if you were interested and end up signing up on board with us we’d be happy to give you 5 free employee discounts. We’d love to talk about that. But most importantly I hope that you all feel that you don’t have to be the last to know and there are things that you can actually do avoid it. Thank you.

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Audience Question: What about the organisation and maturity of the employee? What can we do for the employee so that they also just mature up and understand that sometimes stuff just happens? So, what I’ve seen in the past is I can do many of these things but sometimes the employee acts more or less like a child so we should expect some of the organisation maturity from the employee as well. So what do we do about those things?

Claire Lew, Know Your Company: Yeah, so it’s a tough question because at the end of the day whatever you do you can’t control other people. You honestly can’t even influence certain people in some ways. So my best advice would be for you to embody these things and just show people and for people to learn it through example. That is really the best way people learn so it’s why I also that always feel that if you want to transform your culture and to make sure that it is more open and honest it has to start from the top. It really does. It has to start with the CEO, it has to start with the founder, the business owner. So I would say that if you really care about making sure your employees are doing a lot of these things is to make sure that you are practising and doing these things very explicably yourself. That’s probably the best way.

Audience Question: My question is; you could argue that after setting the vision and culture for the company, job one and two for the CEO, bringing you guys in some ways admitting you’re not very good at a core piece of your job. How do you overcome that or do you feel resistance or are you only bring in enlightened CEO’s anyway as customers as they are self-selecting in that way?

Claire Lew, Know Your Company: It’s a great question. The fact that you are admitting you don’t know your company as well as you would like by using our software or anything like doing a feedback survey etc etc, it’s actually a huge advantage so back to the whole point about being vulnerable and going first it actually causes employees to be a lot more open than they previously would. So it’s actually an amazing way to spark a change in your company if you felt like we have this weird culture of everyone being nice to each other rather than be as honest as they could. So the way to change that is to actually admitting that you are not doing something as well, again, because you are in a position of power because of that dynamic it works to your advantage.

Audience Question: These are great issues to deal with and I think technology is wonderful. How is this better than using an executive coach to teach a CEO how to communicate better and possibly work on other issues. I’m really interested in the differences of the traditional methods and what you are offering.

Claire Lew, Know Your Company: It’s not better by any means. I would say, and it’s a huge reason why I speak, so we build software but a huge part of solving the problem of not always being the last to know, it requires executive coaching, it requires having one on one conversations with employees, meeting with people face to face, there is so much more than just a software solution so it’s why I give this talk about what are the things you can tangibly do what are the things you can do in a meeting you can do over email and again finding ways to have an open and honest environment, there’s no one silver bullet to all of that so the more channels you have to do that, whether it’s executive coach whether it’s software, honestly the more the merrier. It’s a great thought.

Audience Question: This is slightly a tangent but I noticed on your site that you guys do one-time pricing and thought that was really interesting. So it’s like $100 an employee once for like forever? How did you guys come to that? How does it work? Do you think it’s better than $5 or $10 per user per month or whatever it would normally be?

Claire Lew, Know Your Company: It’s a great question. So the pricing model was something that was before I became CEO of Know Your Company when it was just a product. It was something that basecamp came up with urgently. Jason and I talked about it. It’s actually wonderful because it really aligns the value of the product with how much customers are paying for it and in the way that they are paying for it. So for example, typically when a CEO looks to get feedback, let’s say it was a subscription service, they might sign up for one month two months for their employers and then they get distracted with other things and get busy and stop using the service. So that’s fine but maybe from a business perspective you’ve collected money from the actual value you’re providing it means you were only asking your employees for feedback for two months. So in a lot of ways you didn’t even give it a shot. And so instead, for Know Your Company, our company focus has really been how do you help a CEO get feedback from their employees for their entire career that they’re with you at the company. That’s what we really care about. How do you actually align the value and the price of the product to encourage CEO’s to do that so that’s the reason for why we did that.

Claire Lew, CEO, know your company
Claire Lew

Claire Lew

CEO, Know Your Team

Claire’s mission in life is to help people become happier at work. She’s adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at her alma mater, Northwestern University and CEO & Founder of Know Your Team, a software tool that helps managers become better leaders. She’s worked with over 30,000 people in 55 countries at companies including Airbnb, Medium and Kickstarter and is often cited as an expert on the topic of creating more open, honest workplace environments. She’s been published in Harvard Business Review, CNBC, Inc, Fortune.

BoS folk love Claire as she’s a brilliant communicator who leaves you with incredibly clear, actionable advice. She’s attended BoS regularly and given two talks: Don’t Be the Last to Know, on why leaders are often the last to discover something and what to do about it; The Accidental Bad Manager on the biggest mistakes managers make and how to avoid them. You can watch them and more here

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